The way Jill Balgie tells it, Anchorage’s most recent public breast-feeding controversy began last week when she was sitting on the side of the kiddie pool at H2Oasis. Her daughter was playing in the pool. Balgie was chatting with a friend. Her 10-month-old son was hungry, so she breast-fed him. Around then, a water park employee approached with a towel, implied she should cover up and asked her not to feed her son on the pool deck.
"Even though she was very nice about it, I was just shocked. I’ve never been approached before about that," Balgie told me Monday over the phone. "Then I felt uncomfortable. I left."
Balgie said she’d breastfed on the pool deck plenty of times before. And besides, she was being discreet. She had a shirt on over her bathing suit and she draped a towel over her son. Her friend didn’t even notice she was nursing.
By the time she got home, she was mad. She wanted her money back. She and her partner, Barry Croy, went back to talk to the management, but the interaction ended with a public yelling match (Barry: "My son has the right to eat!" H2Oasis president and CEO Dennis Prendeville: "I’m sick of militant breast-feeding mothers!") There was no refund.
Balgie regretted the fight, but she was upset nonetheless. She called around to local breast-feeding advocates. A friend put up a page on Facebook. Over the next few days, 200 supporters signed up and rumors spread of civil disobedience — of "lactivists" organizing a breast-feeding protest in the park’s parking lot.
Which is why I went to the South Anchorage water park on Tuesday to see Prendeville.
Prendeville is a white-haired guy with a kind disposition. He showed me into his back office where Michael Hays, a quiet, youngish guy in a ball cap, was waiting. Hays is the aquatics manager. He was there the day of the incident. Thousands of women have nursed babies at the water park, Prendeville said. There had only been one other similar incident.
"There’s no one here that has a problem with breast-feeding," he said.
The issue in this case was threefold, he explained. Number one: Balgie was too exposed, which made some staff people uncomfortable, he said. And, generally, he doesn’t like breast-feeding so close to the pool because babies have a tendency to spit up, which would mean they’d have to close down a section of a pool to sanitize it. Third, when she came back with Barry, Prendeville felt attacked, like she was accusing him of kicking her out of the park for breast-feeding, which he didn’t do. He regretted the "militant breast-feeding mothers" comment, however.
Prendeville never saw Balgie nursing. Hays sent the employee over. Hays said Balgie’s breast was completely uncovered, except for the part obscured by her son’s head. He said a few other employees saw it too. That story didn’t match Balgie’s at all, which is something I still can’t explain.
Prendeville gave me a little tour of the park. I saw the spot on the edge of the kiddie pool where Balgie had been sitting. It was pretty much in the middle of everything. The place was mobbed with women and children. There were all kinds of bodies. Bikinis. Baby bellies. I watched an overweight guy slogging after a toddler near the pirate ship replica. If he had been a woman, he could have filled out a B-cup.
That’s what got me thinking about breasts and modesty and social rules. Sure, female breasts are sexual objects, but seriously, is there anything less sexual than breast-feeding? How was Balgie’s idea of being discreet the same as Hays’s idea of being indiscreet? Was there really anything indiscreet about a breast-feeding breast, no matter how exposed?
I made some calls to Anchorage Police and the Alaska State Troopers and I was surprised to find exposing breasts in public is not specifically a crime. But this wasn’t about laws, it was about social rules, and individual opinions on what constitutes appropriate behavior for nursing mothers. And, it appeared those opinions were all over the map, shaped by age, gender and culture.
Whose job is it to tell a woman where the modesty line is? Is it OK for an employee at a business to make that call? How about a stranger in a movie theater? I posed the question on Facebook. Responses came pouring in, especially from 30-something mothers. One from my friend Amber hit home:
"I have to look at unibrows and muffin tops. I have to smell Old Spice and old lady perfume. I have to listen to people talk too loud and too much about things that bore the ever-living crap out of me. If they’re offended by seeing part of my not-too-out-of-shape belly, the back of my babies’ heads and maybe some side boob (which is even appropriate on network television) then they can be offended."
What I decided after reading the posts is that breast-feeding in public isn’t a sexual act, it’s an act of utility and necessity. It feeds babies and lets women go about their lives. If a breast gets exposed, it might be embarrassing, but it’s not illegal and I don’t think it’s offensive. Asking a woman to cover up, no matter how politely, implies there’s something wrong with what she’s doing. And that is a conversation that’s never going to end well.
H2Oasis has a right to make rules for its patrons. Those rules should be consistent so no one feels singled out. In this case, there was no posted policy about where a woman could breast-feed. Instead, it was left up to the discretion of a manager.
And as far as I can tell, it probably would have been better for everyone if he just let it go.